Identity crisis

Striking photos of a Somalian woman convey the isolation and loneliness of being a refugee

As the European Union grapples with the largest immigration crisis in decades, an impactful series offers a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be a refugee in Germany


In Europe, where a refugee crisis is reaching a scale not seen since World War II, no country has been accepting more asylum-seekers than Germany. This year alone, 450,000 refugees have applied for asylum in Germany. That’s twice the number of the refugees who applied for asylum in Germany in all of 2014. The numbers are staggering, and have given rise to a heated debate about Germany’s relatively open-door immigration policy.

German towns and cities are straining to house the influx, making room in schools, churches, and community centers. And recently, violent xenophobic attacks on deportation centers have shaken many communities and led to new discussions of racism. Chancellor Angela Merkel was directly confronted with the consequences of the crisis recently when she came face to face with a tearful Palestinian girl who was facing deportation.

Despite the upswing in media coverage, the refugees, and their humanity, are sometimes overlooked. In her series “Apart Together,” Munich-based photographer Inés Dümig offers a deeply personal look into the experience of Sahra, a Somalian refugee who, at the age of 14, survived a harrowing two-year journey over land and sea to reach Germany. “Apart Together” captures the isolation and loneliness that Sahra felt when she arrived in Germany. Employing sensitivity and symbolism, Dümig’s photos allow for an intimacy and empathy often lost in media coverage. Women in the World spoke with Dümig about the series, and what it was like to work with Sahra.

Women in the World: As a photographer, what drew you to the issue of immigration?

Inés Dümig: For my Bachelor’s degree, I had to make a project about my home, trying to make a connection to it. Growing up in Germany, I had always wanted to leave, but I realized so many people, including refugees, want to come to Europe. For them it’s the other way around, and that caught my interest. At that time, immigration was already an issue. I think at that time we had about 90,000 refugees, and now we have over 400,000 refugees.

WITW: How did you find Sahra, the woman in your photographs?

ID: Two friends of mine work at Refugio, a shelter for underage refugees in Munich. So, that’s how I got involved and that’s how I met Sahra. It’s a place where underage refugees can stay for a couple of months, get some support, and get help finding the right school. My friends do a creative workshop for the girls, and help them with German and support them with whatever they need.

WITW: What compelled you to focus this project on Sahra?

ID: I met Sahra, and immediately noticed she was very different. I was photographing two other girls, but they didn’t really want to get involved. They were really scared, but Sahra was very curious. We basically started just talking, and after a while, she trusted me, and I stayed with her. In the beginning, I thought she might be able to teach me — I know this might be selfish — how to deal with life. She went through such heavy stuff, that I thought she might know something that I didn’t know. But I realized from her, it’s something everyone has to learn for themselves. People can help us, but in the end, we have to find our own way.

WITW: Tell us about Sahra’s journey to Germany?

ID: For her it was very difficult. She didn’t get a lot of help in the beginning. She grew up in a slum near Mogadishu in Somalia, and when she was 14, her mom sent her alone. It was a time when a lot of people were leaving, and so she left with other families, but without her mom and her sisters and brothers. She went to Ethiopia, where she worked as a housemaid to save money. Then, she went to Sudan, which was super dangerous. After that, through the Sahara Desert, which must have been horrible through the heat. From the Sahara, she got on a boat to Italy, but the boat had a leak, and they had to be rescued by helicopters. Sahra can’t swim, so this was a very extreme situation for her.

Hers is just one of the many stories we hear over and over again on the Mediterranean. And Italy is overwhelmed for money. They can’t really deal with the amount of people coming. Sahra lived on the street there, and something really bad happened. She couldn’t tell me exactly what it was, but I think it had to do with sexual abuse. It’s really difficult, especially as a woman, to be on the street there. She didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know anyone who could help her. After this, she finally made it to Germany. It took her two years, more or less. She was so young, but she also said she didn’t have a choice, and she didn’t think about it. She said, through her journey, she was much stronger, but it’s a trauma that she’ll always have to live with.

WITW: Through photographing Sahra, what did you learn about the experience of a refugee that you hadn’t seen in the news?

ID: We had some moments where I was overwhelmed because she was very open telling me her story. There were moments when I couldn’t say anything, because it was heartbreaking. I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but I think it was good that we were very honest with each other. I could connect with her feelings as well. I know how it feels to be lonely, and like other people can’t help you. I think that might be a basic human feeling, and I think we can relate to refugees. Life is difficult, and can be very hard and strange and unfair. But on the other hand, I think there are some things we can trust in. I think that’s something I learned from Sahra. You can be in a very difficult situation, and still love. She is such a funny woman, always laughing and dancing, and trying to see the good things.

WITW: How did you approach telling Sahra’s story through photography?

ID: I didn’t want to show the normal picture we have of refugees. I was tired of seeing these sad stories in the news where we don’t really relate to refugees anymore, because we see so many of them. In my photos, symbolic meaning plays a significant role. On the one hand you can see Sahra in the pictures, but I also try to show distance. She’s always been on her own, and I wanted to focus on that feeling. I wanted to show she’s not only a number of many in a bureaucratic system. My project, it’s just one little story. I’m just the bridge between the audience and Sahra, and sometimes it’s difficult to translate that for others. I decided to make these images in a way that we’re not used to seeing, in hopes that people might reflect longer, and get more involved.

WITW: Your photos seem to convey Sahra’s struggle with her identity. What are some of the “multiple identities” she’s grappled with as a refugee?

ID: On one hand Sahra came to Germany as a refugee who needed help. But on the other hand, she is a young woman who wants to explore life. For example, I asked her what kind of relationship she wanted to have, but she said she doesn’t really have ideas about what that means. In Somalia, men and women were not on an equal level. I think she is very curious and open to that, but she has had to learn her own role. Still, for her it’s very difficult to make friends that aren’t in a similar situation. She’s very adult for her age because of the experiences she went through, and I think some people are scared by her background as a refugee.

Inés Dümig

WITW: Can you walk us through a photo that conveys the isolation that Sahra was feeling?

ID: The picture where you see her from the back, in a shower, having this glass between me and her, is a direct symbol of the distance. In this image, through the glass, we just can’t imagine how she feels. She relays some of her inner feelings, but her real feelings can be only assessed up close. I think it symbolizes the distance between me and her, and also the distance between us, as viewers, and them, as refugees.

WITW: Where is Sahra now? Do you still keep in touch with her?

ID: She went to school for four years, and her German is already really good. She didn’t have any education in Somalia, so she is doing very well. She’s moved to another house, where 10 girls live, and they’re all working on their education. Now she’s 21, and she no longer has a social worker looking after her. So, she doesn’t have that support anymore. We are kind of friends now, and we still keep in touch. I feel really connected with her. I want to know if something happens, and feel a little responsible, but it’s also that I can learn so much from her. I have to remind myself how much she went through, and that she can look after herself very well. Better than me, maybe.

WITW: On your website, you pose the question: Is human dignity invaluable? What are you hoping your photos convey?

ID: I think many people’s opinions about refugees go from more racist ones, to feeling pity, or helplessness. But first, we have to be aware that what we see in the news is a professional’s view of a story. And refugees are usually depicted as “the other” that needs our help. I hope that we can find a different way of looking at “otherness.” I think there’s a big potential in immigration, and in mixing cultures. And of course, all of us might need help at some point in our lives. We are all human, and are all connected by our feelings. I think with refugees, we should focus on that, and not on viewing them as the “other.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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